Christmas is coming and although we often think of it as the most magical time of the year, for many it can be a serious challenge.
There are a range of reasons why people find Christmas tough. As well as the pressure to enjoy ourselves and to act happy, it can be lonely and isolating, reminding us of people who aren't around or obliging us to engage with people or situations we'd rather avoid. There might be struggles with money or practical matters, or memories of difficult Christmases of the past. Or perhaps it's because things feel different to the way they once did in other, less testing years. All things which can make it an especially difficult moment for those of us coping with mental health issues, with the added stresses of living through a pandemic only making things even harder.
Although it might sound too simplistic to be true, recent research seems to suggest that thinking back upon positive moments from the past may actually provide practical help.
Memories are a vital part of the way we see ourselves and play an important role in our mental health, with some research finding that sufferers of depression are less likely to recall good memories than bad ones. Their memories of unhappy times may be worse than they were in reality: “competitive memory theory” claims that this repeated activation of negative mental pathways strengthens them while their positive counterparts become weaker. The kind of stresses that Christmas can provoke lower our ability to control our emotions and can allow these negative thoughts and memories to gain the upper hand.
A 2017 research paper published in the “human behaviour” section of journal Nature found that when people recalled positive memories after undergoing a stressful experience, release of the stress hormone cortisol was slowed and parts of the brain associated with regulating emotion became more active, leading the scientists conducting the study to conclude that simply thinking about happier times helped control the rise of negative emotion. Another study from the following year which aimed to explore whether positive memory training was able to help protect those who are at high risk for depression found that training people to contrast negative thoughts like feelings of worthlessness by remembering positive actions in the past seemed to reduce the brain’s tendency to activate negative thought pathways, leading to a significant drop in the number of people suffering from depression. And a more recent study from 2019 found that training people to recall pleasant memories in detail contributed to lowering the risk of negative self-image and depression, finding that eliciting positive memories was associated with lower cortisol and fewer “negative self-cognitions” over the course of one year.
However, some of us may find it difficult to remember positive events, especially during a period as challenging as Christmas. This is why the authors of the 2019 study suggest combining positive memory recall training with treatments like cognitive behavioural therapy. They also say that small acts of personal creativity like writing a journal or compiling a playlist of songs that evoke pleasant feelings may be helpful in reinforcing our ability to elicit positive memories on demand.
So although the idea that simply thinking happy thoughts can have a positive effect on our mental health might sound facile, science certainly seems to be taking it seriously. Let’s hope that it leads to the discovery of ways to make Christmas - and the rest of the year - less of a challenge for those who are struggling.